With the imminent release of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, it’s nearly time to decide what (if any) console you’ll buy for the next generation. For most generations, this decision might be made by which games you want to play. But the advent of cloud streaming via services like Stadia, Microsoft’s Cloud Gaming, and PlayStation Now complicates the decision. A bit. So let’s discuss how—and whether—streaming should matter when you pick your next console.
Where Streaming Is Positioned Now
While some people—like Ubisoft’s CEO—are of the opinion that cloud gaming will eventually replace consoles entirely, we’re not quite there yet. Instead, for this generation, cloud gaming is generally considered an add-on service. Both Microsoft and Sony are offering cloud gaming options that let players stream games to some combination of mobile devices and computer, in addition to their hardware consoles. Stadia, on the other hand, lives exclusively in the cloud.
All three provide a similar core service, but they do so in very different ways. Stadia, for example, is best viewed as a replacement for the console itself. Instead of buying expensive hardware up front, you can pay a monthly fee for access to the platform (or not, more on that below). Microsoft’s cloud gaming is primarily a way to play games on mobile devices. And PlayStation Now is largely a backward-compatibility service that even allows you to play on a PC.
Nvidia’s GeForce Now is also a game-streaming contender worth considering, but it’s aimed more at the PC market. It uses your existing library of games on stores like Steam, Epic, and so on. If you’re a PC gamer looking for a way to stream your games, this is your best option regardless of what we touch on throughout the rest of this article. As for all the other services, which one is worthwhile to you is highly specific not only to your needs but also which console you’re considering. So we’ll break them down one at a time.
Xbox Game Pass Cloud Gaming
Microsoft’s cloud gaming service is arguably one of the best deals in the field right now, primarily because of the service it’s attached to. For years, Microsoft has sold Xbox Live Gold, which costs $60 a year and includes a few free games every month. Then the company launched Game Pass as a separate service for $10 a month (or $120 a year) that gave players access to a huge library of games, including a ton of Microsoft-owned games on day one. To say Game Pass is a worthwhile deal is understating it.
Now, Microsoft has combined both services—Live Gold and Game Pass—into a single $15-a-month subscription and has thrown in cloud gaming as a bonus. If you were already interested in Game Pass Ultimate, then you can install the Game Pass app on Android and stream games from the cloud. (The feature isn’t available on iOS due to a dispute between Apple and Microsoft.)
For now, Xbox’s cloud gaming supports playing on mobile only, but that might not be a huge loss. Game Pass is also available for PCs and allows players to download games directly to their computer, just as they can on an Xbox. If you want to just dip your toe into the streaming world—maybe to try out playing a game on your phone once in a while—Microsoft’s option is the best way to do it without any extra risk or expense. Even if you don’t like cloud gaming, you still get a killer library of games for a decent price.
Sony’s PlayStation Now cloud gaming service has been around longer than any of the other services on this list, but it’s also lagging a bit behind its competitors. Sony just recently updated the service to stream in 1080p—earlier this year, it was limited to 720p—and Sony mainly uses it to play older games from the PS2 and PS3 era, as well as some PS4 titles. Sony has said that PS Now will eventually come to the PS5, but the company has been comparatively quiet about its streaming service compared to Microsoft. It also streams only to consoles and PCs, so mobile gaming is right out.
However, streaming is only part of PlayStation Now’s appeal. Like Game Pass, PS Now includes access to a library of games, some of which can be downloaded locally and others that can be streamed. The service costs $10 a month or $60 a year, the latter of which makes it cheaper than Microsoft’s offering.
One of the best upsides of PS Now is that it lets you play some games on PC, including some Sony exclusives like The Last of Us, Bloodborne, and some Uncharted games. Sony has occasionally, briefly cycled in some more modern exclusives like God of War, but they have disappeared after only a few months. Overall, Sony’s cloud gaming platform is decent, but its library is still a bit lacking compared to Xbox.
This is further complicated by the PS Plus Collection, which features a collection of high-profile, AAA games included in a monthly subscription that’s connected to PS Plus, rather than PS Now. If you had to choose which monthly subscription to buy into, PS Plus is probably a better value, but for now Sony hasn’t combined the two in the same way Microsoft has.
Stadia currently sits in an odd place among the cloud gaming platforms. From a tech perspective, it’s the most robust, offering streaming to TVs, laptops, and mobile phones (once again, excluding iOS), and up to 4K (if you pay for it). It’s also technically the lowest risk. While both Xbox cloud gaming and PS Now require users to pay for the service, you can sign up for Stadia, cancel the free Pro trial, and keep buying games on the platform without ever paying for the service.
That “buying games” bit is what most people get hung up on, though. Unlike Microsoft and Sony’s offerings, Stadia does not come with a massive library of included games, even if you pay for a subscription. Stadia Pro will offer a few free games every month you can claim, but if you miss them, you’ll have to buy them later. On the flip side, once you buy a game you have access to it forever. Even if you cancel the Stadia Pro subscription, you’ll still be able to play games you bought in 1080p.
This puts Stadia in the unique position of being the console-less console. Say, for example, you don’t already have a console and you want to play the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077. You can pay $500 to buy a PS5 or Xbox Series X and pay $60 to buy the game, or … just buy the game on Stadia.
It would be an attractive sales pitch if Stadia had more games. As a newcomer to the market, Stadia’s library mostly consists of smaller indie games and a few token AAA titles you can get on most other platforms. And even though Stadia’s streaming can be higher quality than anyone else’s, nothing quite beats local play just yet. If you don’t want to invest too heavily in a next-gen console and aren’t overly picky about getting top-tier game performance, then buying the odd game on Stadia might be more your speed. However, it will be a while before Stadia is a proper competitor to the complete platform of consoles, subscriptions, and cloud gaming platforms that Microsoft and Sony offer.